It must be frustrating for beginning writers who want to hone their craft, but aren’t given much direction beyond “write every day,” and “read a lot.” It’s been my experience that if you want to improve your writing, you have to start with one tactic and do it every day.
But which ones? What order should you do them in? Are they all important?
Here are the 12 big ones I see a lot of beginning writers need to work on. We’ll start simply and move from there.
Start with the first one, work on it all through January. Make it a habit, and learn to not only recognize it in your writing (and others’), but learn to recognize it before you put it down on paper. Practice the technique on everything you write, not just your Special Private Writing Time. In your blog posts, your emails, your monthly TPS reports. Everywhere.
As you work these writing muscles, you’ll find you can improve your writing everywhere you put pen to paper and finger to keyboard.
- Get rid of That: This is the first place
thatI have most new writers start. This is one of the worst habits thatwe get into as writers, but it’s easy to spot and break. It’s not incorrect, but it makes your writing loose and clumsy. If you can strike it out, and not affect the sentence, do it.
- Avoid other filler words: This is
muchhard er to do. I’ve spent the last 15 years of my writing careerworking on this particular habit, and I’m still not great at it. I usually take 2 – 3 edits before I’m satisfied with the final result.
- Eliminate adverbs and adjectives: Don’t describe verbs, use a descriptive verb. If you use words that end in -ly, chances are, you can get rid of them, and replace the offending verb too. Instead of saying someone “eats noisily,” say “they chomped their food.” So it goes with nouns. Rather than describing the noun, like “the thick hamburger,” rewrite the sentence to show how thick it was. This brings us to our next technique. . .
- Show, don’t tell: Eliminating adverbs is fairly easy. Eliminating adjectives takes a little more work. Instead of describing how thick a hamburger is with a bunch of adjectives, try this: “Jason always bragged about the size of the hamburgers at this place, but I never believed him until I heard my jaw pop when I tried to eat one.”
- Metaphors & similes: Once you’ve started down the slippery slope of showing-not-telling, start using metaphors and similes. They help you explain complex ideas or add punch to your writing. For example, Tom Waits’ song “Putnam County” is rife with powerful metaphors. He describes roads as “asphalt dance floors,” talks about women with “swizzle-stick legs jackknifed over naugahyde stools,” and how a band “moaned in pool hall concentration.”
- Practice Dialog: The ultimate in showing-not-telling. When our kids were little, we told them they would learn a lot more by listening to conversations than interrupting and asking questions. You can reveal ideas and thoughts to your readers without ever explaining a thing just by making them pay attention to conversations. Learn to master dialog.
- Stop talking to your reader: You’re writing to them, but don’t talk to them. Stop nudging them with parenthetical asides, like you’re sharing a secret (I know, I know, you’re probably asking “what do you mean?”) <-- THIS! This right here! Stop doing that! It adds extra words to the piece, and doesn’t actually help the story. Plus, it’s an amateur move.
- Write like people talk: Like Elmore Leonard said, if what we learned in school interferes with our writing, tough shit. It means to adopt an informal tone. Use contractions and end sentences with prepositions. It means to use words normal people use, not markety language or legalese.
- No more business jargon: Do you speak in business jargon? Do you say phrases like “we have to recontextualize mission-critical relationships?” If you don’t, then don’t write that way either.If you do, this is why no one likes you.
- No infinitives or gerunds: If you
have a habit ofend ingwords with -ing, edit and shorten to eliminate them. They don’t add to your writing, but their absence can enhance it.
- Avoid nonsexist language: I hate he/she and him or her, and s/he is not even a word. Nonsexist writing can be some of the worst and hardest to read. Instead, alternate between male and female examples and terms. If you use a “he” in one example, use a “she” in the next. Or, use the singular “they.” Writers shouldn’t be judged just because they chose one gender over the other, as long as they balance it out. If you alternate between “he” and “she” over your general body of work, you’ll be okay.
- Use specific examples, not vague generic ideas: As my friend and owner of The Geeky Press, Brad King, says “don’t tell me about a dog dying. Tell me about the day your dog died.” If you call yourself a storyteller, this is the way to do it. People respond to actual stories, not vague babblings about lofty concepts.
Did I miss anything? What other techniques have you done to improve your writing? What would you suggest for next year? Leave a comment and let me know what writing techniques you want to work on.